|First official meetings between neighbors results in one-goal decisions|
North Idaho made the change from the Scenic West Athletic Conference, a member of the national NJCAA, in late February; though not without controversy - mostly from boosters upset about losing the opportunity to participate at a national level as members of the NJCAA. With enrollment down, the high costs of participating in the sprawling SWAC with membership in Utah and Colorado as well as featuring distant College of Southern Idaho (Twin Falls) were too much for the school, which faced significant decisions about either cutting programs and/or changing conferences. See more via links provided at end of recaps below.
It was 583 miles to face their closest rival in Twin Falls, and with the Cardinals the only soccer-playing program in the SWAC, the challenges were even greater. Forced to find as many games as possible to meet criteria to qualify for the national tournament, the Cardinals ended up playing numerous NWAC programs anyway in addition to several games against club programs at schools such as Washington State, Gonzaga and Idaho. With the indoor teams set to join next year the outdoor sports are now members of the NWAC and as members of the East Division are facing programs that are all within that 583 mile range, including cross-divisional trips that take them to the west side.
"It's been great. Being a part of a conference is just more exciting week to week and game to game. From where we've been, top to bottom, I think it's about the same," said NIC men's soccer coach Ken Thompson. "Just having guys be eligible for conference awards, league leaders and being eligible for the division lead is exciting and fun. And hey, the travel is way better."
"It's been good. I've enjoyed the shorter trips," said women's soccer coach Dan Hogan. "Traveling all over Wyoming and Utah was not that much fun. The competition's good, which I knew from playing in before that it would be."
And NIC has been up to the competition, then and now. With both sides in the top three in the division, they are continuing a trend from the previous five-year membership from 2000-04. The two teams finished at least third in their division in nine of ten campaigns to reach the playoffs.
The men, who went a combined 64-11-13 (regular season) and never missed the postseason, finished as finalists in 2003 and won the consolation match in their first two seasons.
The ladies were even more impressive. Though they missed the playoffs in their fifth NWAC season, they won the league championship in 2001 and 2003 and reached the final in year one. They finished the stint with a 55-18-7 (regular season) record.
This season, the men are dominating the division with a 9-0-1 record and are joined by Peninsula as the only other unbeaten team left across the league. The ladies dropped just their second game of the year in Spokane, but are mired in a four-way chase for the third and final playoff berth due to their numerous draws at 4-2-6.
««« WOMEN »»» NORTH IDAHO COLLEGE 0-1 CC SPOKANE
In a contest that proved to be more of a midfield battle, the hosts had the better of play in the early going, spending much of the first half-hour in the offensive half of the field, but the Cardinals had plenty of fight and created some opportunities to pull even in the second half.
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"Everything we thought it would be," sass. "We knew... throw talent out the window tonight; it was all emotion, who wanted to fight more. And, both teams came out ready to battle. It was everything we expected it would be."
"There was a lot of hype, for sure. The kids; they were ready, they wanted to battle. And I am sure NIC's kids wanted to battle too, and a lot of these kids grew up playing together, they knew each other and they go their own ways. It was fun. It's good to have NIC back in the league. They bring good competition - a nice close game - and they make the NWAC better.
In the second half, the visitors had two great chances back-to-back.
Thirteen minutes in a ball played over the top led to some miscommunication between the center backs and goalkeeper Samantha Burmester, who had come out of the area. Burmester went to boot the ball away, but the clearance caromed off the nearby threesome in front of her instead, deflecting to an open Cardinal toward the right, but she was unable to take advantage of the open goal and get a shot off before the Bigfoot recovered.
"We talked about this at halftime. Once we got that goal, NIC played better and we played worse. That's one thing we've got to do better at is just keeping our foot on the pedal and getting at a team when they are flustered. We didn't do that tonight."
Two minutes later a diagonal ball was played into the area to Taylor Peterson (Missoula, MT), who was charging into the box with a Bigfoot defender on her shoulder. The ball found its mark, but she did not have a chance to put it on frame before her marker knocked it away.
"That's kind of been the story of the season with all the ties that we have had. We've been just a little short on chances, not getting that final touch into the goal or putting it just wide. That's kinda been how our season's gone."
"I think we've gotten really good efforts, attacking-wise, out of both Meghan Pagano (Sandpoint, ID) and Jaimee Hulst (Helena, MT), whose our leading scorer right now," he said of how things are going this season, and who is leading the team. "Natalie Middleton (Liberty Lake, WA) in the midfield is very dominant, and then Alex Rankin (Newman Lake, WA) on the back. Both goalkeepers have played really well too."
The Cardinals are still third in the division having played to more draws than any other team in the entire NWAC. The Bigfoot, meanwhile, are at the top of the division with a showdown for first place facing them Saturday.
"Still a fight for us," he said of being at the midway point of divisional play with a 10-1-1 record. "We got a big one on Saturday with Treasure Valley. We knew this was a big week for battling with a few kids being sick, tired and banged up. We get through Saturday, that's the big one. Treasure beat CBC earlier today; so we knew that result and we knew we had to get this one tonight. We want to get into a position where we can lock things up and get ready for the playoffs. We hope, we expect we will finish at the top of the East. That's our goal anyway."
««« MEN »»» NORTH IDAHO COLLEGE 3-2 CC SPOKANE
The back-and-forth contest featured plenty of drama with five goals, a pair of goal-line clearances, and a concussed goalkeeper. It started early too. In the 10th minute the Cardinals created a chance from the right side with a throw-in soaring over the reach of Damian Ruiz (Richland, WA), forcing defender Brandon Babinski (Spokane, WA) to make a stop on the line to keep the visitors off the board. [FB Video]
Less than a minute later, the Sasquatch got on the board when Devin Leon stepped up and launched a free kick from about 30 yards that took a slight deflection chest-high en route to goal and ricocheted out of the keeper's reach.
What was good for the Bigfoot though, turned out to be even better, as it turned out, for the Cardinals, who went on to score all three on free kick opportunities.
"On the board, it said they were good with set pieces. We are definitely disappointed with our marking and giving away free kicks that allowed them to be dangerous."
North Idaho tied things up in the 20th minute on a free kick about 28 yards out on the right side. It was calmly passed into the area where it was knocked out by the challenging Bigfoot. The ball, however, came out to Jeffrey Rokstad (Sandpoint, ID), who made a short run to collect the ball before turning with it and launching a spectacular soaring effort from about 35 yards that slipped in under the bar, beating Ruiz. [FB Video]
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With the game winding down and the visitors looking to pull even, long ball became a little more prevalent as they looked to quickly get the ball up the field to its dangerous attackers. On one occasion, though, it ran a little long to the diving arms of Ruiz, but Brady Ulen (Post Falls, ID), who had shifted up top, ran into the prone keeper, knocking him out of the game.
"He came out to collect the ball and Brady went through him; busted his mouth open and gave him a pretty good concussion."
"For us, I really think the turning point was when Jose got hurt in goal and we had to put in the second goalkeeper with just a few minutes left, and straight under fire. And NIC capitalized on that."
Back-up Jose Rodriguez (Kennewick, WA) had a short night he will probably like to forget, giving up two in the final three minutes plus an extended period of stoppage time.
"We are a very athletic group. And if you put all of your best athletes in the box, by the end of the game things seem to even out for us, or end in our favor," he said with a chuckle. " It was a pretty open game. In the middle of the second half there, it seemed like we really went to sleep for a while - guys not recovering, guys not moving for the ball. Sometimes getting that goal against us, and moving Brady up top and playing for the win is enough to get us fired up."
Then on a play nearly identical about three minutes into a stoppage time period that was quite lengthy due to the Ruiz stoppage and a few other injuries, the Cardinals stunned everyone for the win. A few yards closer this time, Kraut belted another long free kick from midfield into the box. Alec Johnson (Coeur d'Alene, ID) found enough space at the six to get his foot to the ball and put it into the back of the net for what held as the winner despite several more minutes of extra play. [FB Video]
"I think its good for the league that they are back in because they are a quality side. They have a winning mentality, and leaders on the team that continue to drive them forward. I think after the second goal they could have quit. A lot of teams in our league would have given up - 15 minutes to go and give up a goal. But, they've got those leaders and got the personalities. I think that really made the difference."
"I thought the way the boys performed... I thought we tried to play the better soccer in the match. We never gave up, they fought hard."
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